Kavanaugh Drama Highlights Dem Divide

Impeachment question creates new split in 2020 primary fight

Brett Kavanaugh
Brett Kavanaugh / Getty Images
September 18, 2019

The latest issue dividing Democratic moderates from the party's progressive wing is whether to press for the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

A fresh allegation of sexual assault unveiled by a pair of New York Times reporters has renewed calls for Kavanaugh's impeachment from the vast majority of the party's 2020 contenders. It would be an extraordinary step. Just one Supreme Court justice in history, Samuel Chase, has been impeached, and Chase, who served on the bench from 1796 to 1811, was ultimately acquitted by the Senate and never removed from the bench.

That's perhaps why moderate Democrats are pumping the brakes on the effort. Two candidates who have also resisted the leftward lurch of the party on issues such as health care, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), are staying away from calls to impeach Kavanaugh. While most of the field used the latest allegation against Kavanaugh to call for impeachment, Biden and Klobuchar both said they needed more information.

First to say Kavanaugh "should be impeached" following the latest allegation was Julián Castro, who made the call on Twitter Saturday evening. Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) joined in on impeachment the next morning. Both then touted their impeachment calls in fundraising appeals to supporters.

Most of the field quickly followed suit, but Biden, the candidate atop the polls, and Klobuchar notably stopped short.

In a Sunday statement, Biden said the Times report raises "profoundly troubling questions" about Kavanaugh's confirmation but did not call for impeachment.

"We must follow the evidence to wherever it leads," Biden's statement said. "Doing this the right way is critically important in getting the truth and restoring the American people's faith in their government."

Klobuchar told a group of voters on Sunday that "the most important thing to do first is to get the documents so you can actually look at them to make a decision about impeachment."

"You can't make that decision on just news reports, you have to actually get those documents," Klobuchar said.

Candidates are already split on a number of polarizing issues including health care and the question of whether to impeach President Donald Trump. Political scientist Larry Sabato, who heads the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said the divide boils down to some candidates vying for support from liberal activists, and others already with their eye on the general election.

"A big primary field means the candidates are battling one another for the votes of liberal activists," Sabato said, "and some candidates just won a gold star for calling for Kavanaugh's impeachment."

"Others have said nothing or at least not endorsed impeachment. Why? They are thinking about the broader body of voters that one finds in a general election."

Sabato believes that calls for Kavanaugh's impeachment will wind up being a losing issue for Democrats.

"Practically speaking, this is much like the impeachment talk for Trump," he said. "Even if you could get impeachment for Trump or Kavanaugh through the House, and I don't think you could, it is a complete nonstarter in the Senate."

"Democrats will be seen as spinning their wheels for a gain of nothing."

Arguments over the feasibility of impeachment have divided the Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate.

An impeachment resolution introduced by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D., Mass.) won the support of fellow Democratic House freshmen such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.), but veteran lawmakers are urging them to "get real," according to Politico.

"We've got to get beyond this 'impeachment is the answer to every problem,'" said Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.). "It's not realistic."

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler said Kavanaugh couldn't be impeached because his committee's resources are all focused on "determining whether to impeach the president."

Republicans, including President Donald Trump's reelection campaign, told the Washington Free Beacon they welcome the reemergence of Kavanaugh as a political issue in 2020. "There is no lost battle that Democrats won't revisit in order to satisfy the extremists in their party," said the Trump campaign's Tim Murtaugh.

Sabato concurred that relitigating the Kavanaugh fight won't help Democrats beat Trump, but said that reason doesn't often prevail in today's politics.

"Rationality doesn’t govern politics now," Sabato said. "Maybe it never did."